RIP Edward Herrmann (1943-2014): A John Cheever Memory

RIP Edward Herrmann (1943-2014): A John Cheever Memory

nullEdward Herrmann’s acting talent will always be emblazoned in my memory for one performance he gave, in a television adaptation of the John Cheever story "The Sorrows of Gin" in 1979. He starred with Sigourney Weaver, (who would turn heads, that same year, for her groundbreaking part in Alien) and the adaptation was done, interestingly enough, by Wendy Wasserstein, in the days when she was only just beginning to get acclaim as a playwright. The story describes a husband and wife who, unthinkingly, fail as parents through their boozing, and partying, and self-absorbed decadence; we receive the narrative through the eyes of their child, who pours her father’s gin down the sink and then tries to run away from home. The failure is bigger than that; these two individuals fail each other as members of a relationship, but rather than allowing them to redeem themselves, Cheever leaves them hanging, as he so often does, in their despair. The teleplay was one of three in a series called "3 By Cheever," which, because I was a rapt Cheever fan in 1979, I watched with complete attention; the other two equally melancholy stories in the series were "O Youth and Beauty!" and "The 5:48." I can’t say why, as a youth at a single-digit age, I found these dramas so fascinating; what I can say, though, is that even at that young age, I could recognize the skill and intelligence Herrmann brought to his sad, sad part. It was mainly in his face, both slack and taut, perfect for showing a patrician lifestyle in the early stages of decay. As he and Weaver spoke the poetically charged lines from Cheever’s story, you could tell instantly that they understood the words they were speaking, grasped the message they carried, which is half the battle for an actor. As I think about that trio of dramas (Herrmann was in "O Youth and Beauty!" as well, but did not make as strong an impression on me in that part), I’m given a little bit of pause. We claim to live, over and over, in a "golden age" of the idiot box, and yet would we be in the midst of this age if programs like this had not come first, as models? Well-produced, well-acted, with attention to quality, not calling too much attention to themselves, responsible renderings of literature by a true American master: there is little in today’s programming offerings to match this performance level, and there are few actors working at any time who could have served as agents of the subtlety in "3 by Cheever" as well as Herrmann. He’s had justified recognition for his work in Gilmore Girls, in Reds, in The Lost Boys and many other roles, at other times, but when I heard of his death, this was the first performance I thought of. For your viewing pleasure, below, is a clip from "The Sorrows of Gin."





When we first see Elaine Barrish Hammond (Sigourney Weaver)—former first lady, former presidential candidate, and soon-to-be secretary of state—in Political Animals, she's onstage giving a concession speech, dressed in a purple disco jumpsuit. “Postpartisan purple,” says a friend who's writing a book on color. Purple serves two functions in this soapy miniseries: to signal Elaine’s shifting position in the red-blue Tron that is federal government and to provide an easy mnemonic for her alliance with conflicted journalist Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), who also sports purplish hues.

Berg is correct to wear the color of indecision, because she dwells in a twilight world of journalism in which talking about blogs and pageviews is vulgar and one wins a Pulitzer in one’s twenties for covering Southerner Bud Hammond’s Clintonesque infidelities. She has a dangerously high level of access to the Hammonds and has always been the family’s enemy, because she combines the clout of a sterling newspaper and the temerity to say that Elaine is a fool and a bad feminist to have stayed with her philandering husband.

When the show’s pilot aired on Sunday, this seemed like a stretch. If Political Animals is Hillary porn—a revisionist fanfic in which she leaves Bill and runs for president without his greasy hands on her apron strings, or Obama drops Biden to finish the marathon’s last leg with a proven winner—it’s also not a plausible alternate universe. A well-connected Washington friend confirms that, while it’s common scuttlebutt that HIllary will run in 2016 so as to "get a position that's not seen as coming from her relationship with a guy (wife, opponent who lost),” no one in real-life D.C. circles still thinks or cares about Bill Clinton’s infidelities or considers them a hindrance to the career of Hillary, who seems to be doing fine. Also, says my friend, “she'd never leave Bill; she needs him by her side exactly like people like The Good Wife's husband need their wives. It's all a political calculation.”

Then again, the day after the pilot aired, Slate reported, “Protesters threw tomatoes and shoes at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s motorcade Sunday during her visit to Egypt. Although a tomato hit an Egyptian official in the face, the armored car carrying Clinton was around the corner from the incident, reports Reuters. Protesters were chanting ‘Monica, Monica,’ in reference to Monica Lewinsky.” It’s a chilling picture. Just as Elaine can’t take a step without hearing that Bud has, in Berg’s exposition-laden phrase, “been linked to TV star Eva Flores,” Hillary may never quite be free of that cursed cigar.

Aside from being a wistful/schadenfreudistic fantasy about the Clintons and a muddled exploration of modern journalistic dilemmas, the show also wants to comment on feminism. In this season of “Why Women Still Can't Have It All,” in which Anne Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic story has brought work-family conflicts back into popular and two-gender discourse, we have two heroines (in purple), torn between professional ambition and personal and moral responsibility.

It looks so far as though Elaine will be okay with further sacrificing her privacy, since there’s probably not much left for the media to uproot. As for risking being perceived as unfeminine, it’s one of the show’s subtextual obsessions; we must continually be reminded that despite her ambition, Elaine is still smokin’ hot, that she has current sex, that she has a soft, motherly heart that just doesn’t show to those cold reporter and pundits.

But Berg, retroactively sheepish author of the book When Bitches Rule, has a residual yearning for traditional things even as she spews unlikely, and probably punishable, sexist abuse at her hot mini-Wonkette younger colleague. Her newspaper-editor boyfriend is cheating on her with said Wonkette, a demonic robot of new media (“My blog hit over one million unique users this month!”), but he’s such a blank-eyed Bil Keane nonentity that there must be another man in store for her. Perhaps the Hammonds’ anxious son Douglas (James Wolk), Elaine’s chief of staff who’s properly engaged to a nice girl? As the Gallant to his brother TJ’s Goofus, so eager to please his parents that he doesn’t notice his fiancee’s bulimia, Douglas is surely destined for some politically inconvenient temptation.

As for Goofus (Sebastian Stan), he seems to have been dropped into this ostensibly stentorian family from an episode of Entourage. He snorts coke, has nightclub-ownership dreams, says “bro” a lot, and gets away with murder. We’re meant to believe he’s just spoiled, but maybe the family is just afraid of what he’ll do if they don’t tolerate his whining, rudeness, and capacity for public embarrassment. That he was the first out gay offspring of a sitting president is meant to excuse his terrible behavior, and his noodling around on the piano demonstrates that he still has a sensitive soul. But the near-stereotype of a damaged, dangerous gay man is a retrograde premise that may entirely negate the show’s purportedly enlightened inclusion of a gay character. TJ may be standing in for the Bush twins, and seems to enjoy as few serious consequences for his manipulative-addict behavior as did Jenna, Barbara, and Bush Jr.

Perhaps appropriately for the perpetually identity-seeking USA network, in a season of far-fetched political promises, Political Animals wants to include a little something for everyone: a fast-paced Middle East story for the 24 junkies, some goofy canoodling for fans of Dave and The American President, the requisite staff backstabbing and wisecracking à la The West Wing, and a touch of Intervention for the rest of us. As a bonus, Ellen Burstyn, as sexy grandma Margaret Barrish, flings outré zingers in the tradition of Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey.

No one could accuse the miniseries of being intimidatingly cerebral or edgy in its gender politics, but, aside from the winking mise-en-scène of the purple outfits, semiotic crumbs seem to be scattered everywhere. Do they merely allude to familiar things —i.e., Barrish is a secret smoker with killer arms, combining both Obamas in one—or are they Agatha Christie–style clues to a sinister subplot we won’t see coming until the finale?

Americans never do quite seem to shake their royalist roots, and Political Animals is ultimately a familiar story of rich people in nice clothes, plotting successions and scandals from a comfortable position of power. Meanwhile, there’s a story here that hasn’t been told to my satisfaction. You know who really can’t shake her legacy? Monica Lewinsky. She’s in a purgatory of perpetual internship and disgrace despite her subsequent education and accomplishments.

I’d like to see a miniseries starring a Lewinsky character, wearing purple, with a political bucket of blood for the prom-queen politicos who left her high and dry. As Barrish explains to Berg, “You’ll never get to the next great moment if you don’t keep going.” When bitches rule, indeed.

Emily Gordon is the online editor of The Washington Spectator and has written the blog Emdashes since 2004. She tweets at @emdashes.

SIMON SAYS: Trying Harder: What PROMETHEUS Gets Right

SIMON SAYS: Trying Harder: What PROMETHEUS Gets Right


One character in Prometheus sums up why Ridley Scott's return to his 1979 science fiction milestone is as refreshing as it is, in just two words. The protagonist in question is an android, arguably the first in the series since Aliens who’s more than an extension of the people who programmed him. Typically, androids are understood to be mental blank slates in the Alien films, so it makes sense that in Prometheus, David (Michael Fassbender) is treated as a tabula rasa. In fact, one character points this out late in Prometheus's plot, reminding him that he can't feel the emotions he professes to. So it's fitting that, when asked what his boss has communicated to him, David says: "Try harder." 

Prometheus, more ambitious than any other Alien sequel, has an impressively massive scope, both literally and figuratively. The film's mammoth CG and concept art-heavy sets are matched only by its over-arching theological speculation. Of course, because Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection both went through production hell, their stories are understandably incoherent. But even Aliens, James Cameron's perfectly adequate follow-up to Alien, has relatively staid aspirations. 

The Alien franchise, up until Prometheus, delivered less and less of a payoff. This is most evident in the degrading of the relationship between three key figures in each film: the lead human protagonist (usually Ripley); the robot; and the Xenomorph. In Alien, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) was the last survivor of the Xenomorph's attack on the Nostromo. She manages to escape the hazards of A mission whose main directives are unclear to all but one of its crew members. Ash (Ian Holm) is the voice of "the company," a phrase over-used in the Alien movies to describe the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. The company's motives are hidden and in this case, immediately dangerous. The Xenomorph thus represents an idiosyncratically weird fusion of technology and primal sexual tension (holy freeholey, H.R. Giger, to what libidinal depths did you plunge to come up with that concept art)—as well as all the trauma and emotions the otherwise bloodless company has suppressed. So it stands to reason that Ash admires the perverse "perfect[ion]" of the Xenomorph's feral but chilly behavior. The Xenomorph is the monster that Ash wants to become but cannot, since he was made in his creators' image.

Ripley's relationship with the Xenomorph is similarly not personal. In Alien's futuristic office space, Ripley is just one grunt among many. For the longest time, she's not the lead protagonist, just a survivor, more a concept than a character. This is striking given who Ripley is presented as in the forthcoming sequels. Each time, she's treated as the reluctant host to the Xenomorph's parasite. In Aliens, the aging Ripley's ticking biological clock gives her nightmares about motherhood, including one in which an alien shoots out of her guts. Her relationship with Newt (Carrie Henn) is simple: she is the child that Ripley wants, but the Queen Xenomorph is blocking her. The aliens are thus once again extensions of Weyland-Yutani, but this time they ultimately represent the monster the company might gradually turn Ripley into. 

The most complex character in Aliens is thus Bishop (Lance Henriksen), the one representative of Weyland-Yutani consistently portrayed as both an emissary of "the company" and an individual. In Alien, Weyland-Yutani employees only start to exist as individuals once they reject the mandates of their bosses. This is also true of David in Prometheus, who says that when his master dies, he "will be free." So it's refreshing to see that Bishop, at the end of Aliens, stands by Ripley and Newt in their final fight against the Queen. In that one moment, Bishop sets up the archetype that screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaights will follow for David in Prometheus. Bishop's nature as a more human-like model is apparent in his lack of interest in the Xenomorphs. He, like Ripley, is there to save lives. The mission that he's on is thus not one that sympathetically associates him with the Xenomorphs. Instead, it's assumed that Bishop is trying to be, as the saying goes, "just one of the guys," a point succinctly illustrated during the famous knife trick scene.

Unfortunately, the next two sequels only perpetuate the more psychologically lacking aspects of the franchise. In Alien 3, Ripley grapples with her nascent feelings of survivor's guilt on a prison planet full of convicted murderers and rapists, some of whom have reformed. Ripley relates with the prisoners, all of whom are at least nominally atoning for their crimes. But that identification inexplicably makes the alien the cause of Ripley's feelings of impotence: in her head, the Xenomorph’s survival  is her responsibility and her fault. That theme is never fully explored but it's assumed that Ripley, who tries to get a prisoner to help her kill herself before she (and the alien she will soon give birth to) cause further damage, feels responsible for the Xenomorphs. Her death at the end of Alien 3 is not cathartic, however, because it's a drastic reduction of Alien's themes to a surreal fight between a specific character and a world-ending monster.

Furthermore, the man who created Bishop returns in the last scene of Alien 3, predictably representing Weyland-Yutani's psychopathic interest in studying and profiting from the Xenomorphs. Ripley briefly revives the robo-carcass of Bishop earlier on—meaning the Bishop android that was pretty much destroyed by the Queen at the end of Aliens. But Bishop's human creator's random appearance at the film’s conclusion is as good a sign as any of how un-nuanced that film's portrayal of "the company" and its androids have become.

That being said, Alien: Resurrection, a consistently entertaining but often ridiculous and mostly brain-dead sequel, is even more unambitious. The film starts with a heady theme: what does a post-Ripley Alien movie look like? Ripley's clone is the film's main heroine, once again restructuring the “Alien film” as a personal fight between her and the Xenomorph: ironic, given that the film's main theme is supposed to be evolution and the way that time has changed things. The Xenomorph may have transformed into a weird human-alien hybrid called a "Newborn" by film's end, and the robot Ripley deals with may be a lady (Winona Ryder), in fact. But there's nothing to suggest that anything that Ripley's relationship with these emblematic characters has grown or drastically changed from what we've seen in the last three films. Call (Ryder) is a sympathetic companion and is defined as an individual throughout Alien: Resurrection. There are thus no substantial stakes in her relationship with Ripley. And the Newborn is still just a dangling thread that Ripley has to get rid of so she can die easily. Call also has no real fascination with, or even strong hate for, the Xenomorphs or the Newborn. She just wants to kill the monster and not "die."

This thankfully brings us back to Prometheus, a film that finally builds on the foundation that Scott built with screenwriters Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is circumstantially different than Ripley: she gets in over her head in her quest for answers. Shaw's actively searching for the unknown, unlike Ripley, who just happened to stumble upon it. Shaw is thus guided by the same impulses as David, a character who embodies a potentially pure drive towards scientific exploration. David is only corrupt because his master is corrupt. The deaths of a couple of other characters in the film suggest that Prometheus has a naive but intriguingly moralistic through-line: discovery for flawed reasons is dismissed. 

Unlike some other characters, Shaw has no ulterior motives. She genuinely wants to see, do and learn more than anyone else on the Prometheus, the ship that has replaced the Nostromo. The aliens in Prometheus, called Engineers, are the tantalizingly close realization of Shaw's search but ultimately, her encounter with them is not what it could be.  She does not learn anything from that originally wanted to. The aliens that Shaw encounters have no answers for her, leaving her right where she started at the film’s beginning.

That having been said, there is a serious danger inherent in these creatures, made clear when David suggests that the Engineers may have just made humans for the same reason man made androids: "because [they] could." But at the same time, there's a romance to David's actions. He idolizes the Engineers, and calls them "a superior race." But he also admires Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Lawrence of Arabia, even going so far as to dye his hair an Aryan blond to match his messianic hero. David stands in awe of the Engineers and gets to "live" ultimately because he has that drive to learn and do more to learn about Prometheus' aliens.

By film's end, David and Shaw choose to continue their search for answers to big questions. And while that resolution's thematic bottom line is fairly simplistic, it's also what makes Prometheus's conclusion the second most satisfying in the series. To dream, to continue to strive for something greater than yourself and, yes, to try harder, in the face of the horrifying and the cruel is a very noble thing.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

VIDEO ESSAY: Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS Timeline

VIDEO ESSAY: Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS Timeline

It’s perplexing to survey the recent surge of excitement from sci-fi movie fans about Ridley Scott. Sure, Scott’s two directorial sci-fi films—Alien and Blade Runner—set the benchmarks for the sci-fi horror and the sci-fi futuristic thriller, respectively, but Scott hasn’t directed a sci-fi film in thirty years. In fact, Scott hasn’t garnered much critical or financial success for a large chunk of his recent work (Body of Lies, Robin Hood, Kingdom of Heaven and A Good Year). So this excitement must be the result of two forces: 1) the studio’s clever marketing strategy of highlighting the fact that Scott only directed the original Alien, thus forgiving those late, lackluster spin-offs in the franchise; and 2) moviegoers’ desperate yearning for a credible companion piece to that same landmark 1979 film (e.g. Roger Ebert on the fourth Alien film: “There is not a single shot in the movie to fill one with wonder”). Considering these notions, Scott’s newest film, Prometheus, is destined to come under harsh scrutiny.

For starters, Prometheus was long thought to be a prequel to Alien—until Ridley Scott vehemently insisted that Prometheus was not a “prequel” per se, but a film that occupied the same fictional universe—a dark, capitalism-gone-awry space frontier full of privately funded space vessels and government-manned cargo ships—Scott created with Alien. This notion clashes with the studio’s marketing strategy of anchoring both Scott and Prometheus with Alien trademarks (the similar font for its title in the trailer, a strong female lead battling monstrous beings, etc.). As a result, much Internet speculation has surfaced regarding the possible linkage between Alien and the new Prometheus; where would Scott’s new film take place and would it feature the franchise’s aliens? The irony here is that Prometheus—once shrouded in secrecy—has become one of the year’s more transparent blockbusters. After releasing three (yes, three!) teaser videos announcing the arrival of its first theatrical trailer back in December 2011, Prometheus began a viral marketing campaign illustrating the visual history of its own place in Scott’s fictional universe. And if one were to do some homework and logical placement of events, the Prometheus-universe timeline would look something like this:

2023 – Weyland Industries Founder Peter Weyland gives a bold speech at a TEDTalks event, declaring humans’ new roles as Gods because of their ability to create human-like “cybernetic” individuals (a reality embodied in the Alien franchise, with Androids like Bishop and Call).

2089 – Archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw discovers an ancient map in a cave and then sets off a series of events leading to a space expedition to discover the origins of human life.

2093 – The Weyland Industries expedition crew, aboard the spaceship named Prometheus, lands on the distant moon LV-223. Instead of the origins of human life, they discover destructive beings (but not the titular monsters from Alien). The crew is killed. In the end, one of these destructive beings evacuates LV-223 in an ancient space pod of some sort.

The next date is not a Prometheus viral video; it is a known event from the original Alien film.

2122 –The crew of USCSS Nostromo (the cargo vessel carrying Alien heroine Ellen Ripley) investigates the planetoid LV-426 (which wouldn’t be too far from LV-223) and discovers a wrecked alien ship. Lo and behold, they find the fossilized remains of the destructive being from Prometheus.

In conclusion, Scott seems to have created a “peripheral prequel” to his historic sci-fi horror film Alien. There are no direct character lineages (outside of Weyland Industries) or same alien threats (presumably). The important difference between Alien and Prometheus seems to come down to Scott’s polarizing themes. With Alien, Scott set out to rewrite the space opera (e.g. Star Wars, Star Trek) into a terrifying gore fest. Judging from the ideas and content in the Prometheus viral videos (the origins of life, man’s ambition to play God), Scott now looks to expound on the hazards of ambition and hubris. If that’s the case, then maybe Scott’s thirty-year absence from sci-fi is worth the wait.

But this is all speculation. Maybe Scott just wants another monster to pop out of someone’s chest. We’ll find out on June 8th.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System."